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Congressman Donald McEachin at a roundtable discussion about local infrastructure on Friday Oct. 5, 2018.

While the Richmond region boasts an impressive number of grocery stores — especially in the wealthier, fast-growing suburbs — sadly not all residents can enjoy the wide array of shopping options. In fact, across Virginia and the United States there is often an unfortunate lack of proximity to grocery stores in low-income and low-access rural and urban communities.

An estimated 1 million Virginians live in so-called food deserts — areas with no grocery stores within one mile in urban regions and within 10 miles in rural communities. Nationally, that figure is estimated at a dangerously high 37 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s about 11 percent of the country’s population, a distressing figure two decades into the 21st century. People who live in communities where it’s hard to find affordable, fresh food face higher risks for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Two Virginia Democratic lawmakers are part of a bipartisan effort to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas by providing tax credits and grants to food service providers such as grocers, retailers and nonprofits. U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner and U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin are again among the sponsors of the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, which seeks to offer incentives to eliminate food deserts. The bill was introduced two years ago but didn’t clear the last session of Congress. No cost estimates are yet available.

“Families in Virginia must be able to count on reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live,” Warner said in a statement. Hunger and food insecurity need to be addressed, McEachin agreed: “Access to healthy, nutritious food should not be dependent on geography.”

The act defines a grocery market as a retail sales store with at least 35 percent of its items dedicated to selling fresh produce, poultry, dairy and deli offerings. As McEachin has previously explained on these pages, the bill would create a system of incentives to help companies and nonprofits build, improve or operate grocery stores, farmers’ markets and food banks in underserved areas. The bill hopes to spark investment in especially hard-pressed areas that have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or a median family income of less than 80 percent of the regional or statewide median.

Food deserts are a chronic problem in the Richmond region, one that threatens the overall well-being of its residents and can cause a slew of ill effects. According to the USDA, 60,545 Richmond residents lived in a food desert in 2015. That figure was almost 38,000 for Henrico, nearly 16,000 for Petersburg and just over 14,000 for Chesterfield.

“Food deserts disproportionately impact low-income communities, creating additional barriers for our neighbors to achieve healthy, productive lives. This legislation is a huge step in the right direction and offers tremendous opportunity to bring new investment to communities that need it most,” said Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

We applaud The Market@25th, the new grocery store in Richmond’s distressed East End that’s backed by businessman and philanthropist Steve Markel. The area is home to four large public housing communities — Mosby, Whitcomb, Fairfield and Creighton courts — yet lacked a major grocery store. Many of the residents live in poverty. But now they have a convenient place to buy vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods.

In this land of plenty, no citizen should live without easy access to fresh, affordable food. Not everyone can drive to a nearby Wegmans, Publix or Kroger, or walk to a local farmer’s market. Not everyone lives on a bus line. Healthy communities need good choices that are readily available. We urge Congress to pass the legislation into law.

— Pamela Stallsmith

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